Five misconceptions about Growth Mindset – Part 1

Author: Natalie Nezhati, Educational content consultant

I’m no good with numbers. I can’t draw. I’m not a creative person. I’ll never understand Physics. Shakespeare is impossible. I’m rubbish at sports. Sound familiar?

Most educators hear such comments all the time and unless blessed with a particularly saintly disposition, can end up feeling just as frustrated as the student! It’s easy then to understand why Growth Mindset holds a strong appeal with well-meaning teachers and parents looking for a message of encouragement.

The theory is attractive: a ‘fixed mindset’ is one in which intelligence is static while a ‘growth mindset’ allows for the possibility that intelligence can grow, much like a muscle, through hard work and application. Currently, one of the most widely discussed and frequently misunderstood topics in education, the concept was introduced in Carol Dweck’s best-selling ‘Mindset: A new Psychology of Success’. But of course, if you’re an educator or parent, you will probably already know this.

Dweck’s theory was quick to catch on globally and many schools now actively promote a ‘Growth Mindset culture’. In fact, a recent US study found that 98% of educators surveyed agreed that a Growth Mindset approach will lead to improved student learning, with most making an effort to praise their students for effort and perseverance.

But some point to a lack of evidence that Growth Mindset actually works in an educational setting. Its harshest critics dismiss the theory as feel-good pseudo-science, drawing parallels with ‘learning styles’ aka ‘VAK’ and even the infamous ‘brain gym’, which, in the world of education, is probably the most devastating comparison of all. The teaching of Growth Mindset in schools is controversial and increasingly criticised by some of the UK’s prominent educationalists, including Tom SherringtonDylan WiliamToby YoungDavid Didau and many involved in Research Ed.

Attitudes to Growth Mindset differ widely which makes it difficult for time-pressed teachers to make sense of the facts. Do we have enough evidence that it works? Whose research should we trust? Are schools equipped to teach it and, if so, how? What’s the point? What’s the harm?

The issue is confusing and Dweck has proclaimed that the misapplication of Growth Mindset in schools has kept her up at night. Below are a few of the most common misconceptions about Growth Mindset – and the truth.

Misconception 1: Teaching Growth Mindset improves students’ academic progress 

In 2015 the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) published the results of a five-month ‘Changing Mindsets’ trial. It aimed to teach Year 5 primary school students the mindset that intelligence is something they can change through effort. Some students were found to make additional progress in English and Maths, but only at levels considered to be ‘statistically insignificant’.

In other words, the results were inconclusive.

Misconception 2: The best way to promote a Growth Mindset culture is through high-quality teacher CPD and embedded teaching strategies

Results from ‘Changing Mindsets’ suggest that training students about mindset could be more effective than training teachers about mindset – though again, we can’t be certain.

This is thought to be the case because the EEF arranged two trials as part of the research project. One involved training the students directly via workshops delivered by external trainers and the other involved training the students’ teachers.

While the academic gains made in the workshops are statistically insignificant, the EEF say these results suggest ‘evidence of promise’, with students making an average of two months’ additional progress in English and maths.

Training teachers appeared to be less effective, with students making no additional progress in maths and less additional progress in English. Though again, the findings are statistically insignificant.

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